Why write ‘difficult’ music?
Any composer or musician who produces contemporary music will be familiar with negative responses. The severity of the negative response can vary, sometimes it is an ideological debate other times it may be more physical, and both have the potential for long term consequences on the recipient. I recall witnessing a clash of opinions as a postgrad student, my supervisor had written a set of songs, the text based on intimate love letters. The performance was open to university staff and students and a conference room was booked. The performance was good and polite applause seemed to signal the end of the evening. Suddenly a member of the audience launched a tirade against the musical language used, I offered views that took the middle ground in the hope of calming the situation, the aggression continued for the best part of 30 minutes.
Was this aggressive reaction a response to a more complex manner of expression, or are other forces at work in such instances? Before attempting an answer the first task is to consider some aspects of simple and complex music. To simple music we may ascribe:
· Clear melodic structures, often only one theme is used.
· Clear contrasts, little in the way of transitions
· Repetitive rhythms often based on dance patterns
· Conventional orchestration and use of instruments
· Familiarity of style, e.g. use of folk music, hymns, spirituals
· Recollects or suggests comfortable environments, suggests group action or cooperation.
One example of simple music is Eric Coates “Calling All Workers”, I haven’t chosen this because it reminds me of my youth, it doesn’t! It is a wonderful example of music produced to motivate factory hands (it was composed in 1940 and played a significant part in the war effort) and contains the majority of the characteristics outlined above.
Calling All Workers may be heard at:
Not all simple music is either effective or popular but when it is its appeal can be widespread. There are times when the music features some of the above characteristics and still manages to gain a wide audience. Arvo Pärt has music that speaks to specific religious groups, uses familiar elements both historical and technical but there is more to the structure than one might expect as this extract illustrates:
Pärt designed strict rules to control how the harmonic voices move with the melodic lines in his music, diktats which are as strict as serialism; ironically, given his rejection of his previous avant garde obsessions, the success of his new musical language is dependent on precisely the objectivity of thinking that serial composition demands. That austerity of process makes Pärt's tintinnabulation a new use of tonality, even a new kind of tonality, and it explains why his music sounds simultaneously ancient and modern… (Tom Service – The Guardian 18.06.2012).
For the sake of balance difficult music may feature some of the following:
· Complex harmony and rhythm
· Patterns of repetition are less obvious
· Irregular phrasing
· Unconventional tuning / scales
· Unconventional approaches to text
· Dealing with serious issues such as mortality, psychological perception etc.
· Reduction or distortion of human characteristics
The issue of patterns of repetition have been given psychological scrutiny, as the following extract shows:
The section “less predictable than random tone sequences” is rather worrying and I suggest that his subjects were unfamiliar with atonal music, and that the randomly produced tone sequences were less than random. However the general point is made about predictable events, and would make a case for the popularity of minimalism over other contemporary styles.
Mentioning minimalism brings us back to the musical arguments which take place between musicians who hold to different preferences! Group membership is a powerful motivating factor on our ego, and here is the most interesting factor the closer the groups are to each other the stronger the conflict that arises.
This statement by Dean Burnett makes the matter clear:
Our brain makes us hostile to those who threaten the group, even if it is a trivial matter.
(The Idiot Brain).
There is no need to refer to countless skirmishes between football supporters, we can turn to the followers of Wagner and Brahms: